June 17, 2010
The Federal Communications Commission moved closer to re-regulating high-speed Internet access Thursday, voting along political party lines to hold an inquiry to determine how and whether broadband should be regulated to deliver improved opportunities for consumers and carriers alike.
The Notice of Inquiry adopted by a 3-2 vote dominated by the three Democratic commissioners seeks to "identify the legal approach that will best support its efforts to ensure universal access to affordable, high-quality broadband services; promote broadband innovation, investment, and competition; and protect and empower consumers." Public comments -- and a flood of them is expected -- are to be accepted until July 12, with reply comments due August 12. At the heart of the issue is whether broadband should be classified as a Title II telecommunications service or whether it should remain less regulated as a Title I information service. FCC chairman Julius Genachowski has proposed a "third way" in which Internet content and applications would remain "generally unregulated under Title I," but some important features of broadband would be brought under Title II. Already fiercely debated by parties ranging from public interest groups to large carriers, an army of lobbyists is already deployed and ready to weigh in on the issue. Also in the background is an April decision by a federal appeals court that supported Comcast, arguing that existing provisions of Title I do not represent authority to regulate Internet networks. "I disagree with the premise of this proceeding," said Republican commissioner Robert M. McDowell in a statement issued after the Thursday morning vote. "Not only is the idea of classifying broadband Internet access as common carriage under Title II unnecessary, already it has caused harm in the marketplace. As a threshold matter, classifying broadband as a Title II service is not necessary to implement the recommendations of the National Broadband Plan. The Comcast decision certainly does not affect our ability to reallocate spectrum, one of the central pillars of the Plan." The majority vote was immediately hailed by public interest groups. "The Commission's simple, uncomplicated action today makes certain that the expert agency in telecommunications has the authority to carry out its mission," said Gigi B. Sohn, president and co-founder of Public Knowledge, in a statement. "The Commission has been attacked unmercifully by multi-billion dollar companies using threats, intimidation, and fabrications, among other distasteful tactics. They have used captive or unwitting legislators, in the face of common sense, to further their corporate goals at the expense of millions of Americans." Also in the background of the National Broadband Plan, which was presented to Congress earlier this year, is the relentless drop in broadband access rankings among Americans compared with other industrialized nations. The Democrats argue that their plan will help spur the growth of affordable broadband while the Republicans and carriers generally believe a more deregulated environment will entice additional investment from companies. The Democrats will have a tough slog to get their plan adopted. They are faced with near-monolithic opposition from Republican lawmakers. In addition, more than 70 Democratic lawmakers have voiced opposition to the FCC plan. The Notice of Inquiry is an open invitation to all sides in the broadband debate to argue their case. The Notice of Inquiry seeks answers to whether the Commission's Title I information service classification of broadband "remains legally sound and adequate to support effective performance" and seeks also to examine "the legal and practical consequences of classifying broadband Internet connectivity as a 'telecommunications service.'"
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